Above photo: The Israeli Separation wall around Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. Muhammed Qarout Idkaidek/APA Images.
Palestinians have for years said that they are living under an apartheid order.
Why have non-Palestinians been so reluctant to acknowledge this?
On April 27, Human Rights Watch released the report “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” In over 200 pages of rigorous research, the authors establish why, under the 1973 Convention against Apartheid and 1998 Rome Statute, the race-based order through which Israel governs the Jewish and Palestinian population between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River amounts to the crimes of apartheid and persecution. The report follows an identical conclusion by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem that Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy amounts to apartheid. That the findings of the report are meticulous in their analysis and overdue in their conclusions is an understatement.
Because the report is unassailable on its merits, I won’t dwell on summarizing its points or repackaging its recommendations. Instead, I would point out that, years before HRW or B’tselem offered their own conclusions, Palestinians have produced an extensive record, through scholarship and legal analysis, as well as lived experience, to inform the world that Israel has been and continues to commit apartheid against them. Reflecting this, my intent is for HRW’s report to serve as a foundation for further discussion on an examination of the world’s refusal to acknowledge the truth Palestinians have been telling for years, and shedding light on the implications of the report for understanding contemporary Israeli society.
To begin, given that Palestinians have for years presented evidence that they are living under an apartheid order, why have non-Palestinians been so reluctant to acknowledge this? HRW and B’tselem’s own words provide clarity.
Explaining how they arrived at their conclusion, B’tselem states it was the “enactment of the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, which declares the distinction between Jews and non-Jews fundamental and legitimate” and the “official statements regarding formal annexation of more parts of the West Bank attest[ing] to Israel’s long-term intentions to achieve permanent control over the land,” that convinced them of the true character of Israeli measures. HRW, while less explicit in their report, refers to the insistence of Israel and supporters that the occupation is temporary as “obscur[ing] the reality of Israel’s entrenched discriminatory rule over Palestinians.” Further, Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, in comments to the New York Times, indicated that “the main reason for the change…was that Israeli policy, once considered temporary, had over time hardened into a permanent condition.”
What goes unsaid in these analyses is the admission that the policies Israel had been pursuing well in advance of these reports are exactly the same policies that HRW and B’tselem now consider sufficient to meet the definition of apartheid. It is not as if all Israeli laws and policies were racially neutral for the past decades and only in recent years changed to treat Palestinians and Jews differently according to their ethnicity. While some new racist laws, such as the Nation State Law, have been advanced recently, many of the laws, policies, and goals cited as proof of apartheid have been governing Palestinians for generations.
In fact, a close reading of the HRW report reveals that only a fraction of the evidence presented as grounds for apartheid originates in the recent past, while many policies intended to entrench Jewish supremacy have been active for decades. As HRW notes, as early as 1980 the Drobles Plan, which “guided the [Israeli] government’s settlement policy”, treated settlement building as “the best and most effective way to remove any trace of doubt about [Israel’s] intention to control [the West Bank] forever.” The same is true for the measures undertaken to Judaize the Galilee and Negev by dispossessing and enclosing Palestinian populations, as well as the policies of the Jewish National Fund related to the control of land and right to live on it. The first of these measures, as documented by HRW, are almost as old as the state of Israel itself.
Statements cited by HRW as proof of Israel’s intent to establish permanent race-based control over the territory also go back decades. As noted in the report, in 2000, soon-to-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote about the imperative to dispossess Bedouin in the Negev of hundreds of thousands of dunums of land. In the same year, the Jerusalem Municipality’s planning and policy document explicitly affirmed the goal of “maintain[ing] a Jewish majority in the city,” aspiring to a ratio of 60% Jews to 40% Palestinians.
In addition, the claim that a reasonable observer could believe Israel’s race-based system was temporary and would be dissolved with the reaching of a final status peace deal under the Oslo auspices ignores the fact that many of the mechanisms of racial discrimination now identified as apartheid would remain unchanged under such a deal. While the Oslo process envisioned the end of military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, it, by design, did not address policies within Israel proper. Even under the most expansive terms Israel might have agreed to, none would have affected the inequalities in granting citizenship, freedom of movement and residence, or the mass land dispossession and Judaization of the Galilee and Negev.
Given that so much evidence has existed in the public record for so long, why did these organizations wait until the present day to reach the conclusion that the system rose to the definition of apartheid? Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that these organizations were willing to take the Israelis at their word. As HRW notes in its report, many Israeli leaders were diligent in their messaging to international audiences, frequently affirming they viewed the occupation as temporary. Some may have sincerely believed and wished this.
These organizations clung to the belief that while the existing order amounted to an irrefutable system of domination predicated solely on the basis of race, it would be transitory on the way to a more equitable destination. Furthermore, if the right-thinking members of society could prevail, the worst excesses enacted by the bigoted over the years would eventually be reversed. By this logic, it was preferable to not interfere in the struggle, and, by doing so, give ammunition to the bigoted. This argument, usually offered by those acting in bad faith or bad judgment, was reflected in such statements as “it does not help to single Israel out,” or “this will push us further from a two-state solution.”
The view that Israel is on the cusp of ending its racial system if only the right actors from within the system could take control is an illusion created by a reductionist lens. A simplistic perspective that attributes the source of all ills to a select cast of villains, while ignoring the entrenched power structures and motives, often cloaked, yet intuitively discernible, that operate with far more effectiveness and intractability beneath the surface. One of the most common manifestations is the “Bibi fallacy,” the idea that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were removed from the scene the system of race-based oppression he presides over would quickly disintegrate. Such thinking creates a tunnel vision, where the singular fixation on certain figures and the attribution to them of all the increasingly apparent xenophobia and bigotry in segments of Jewish Israeli society mask the true extent to which these attitudes and their outcomes are not recent additions but foundational tenets.
The events of April 22, when viewed in concert with the report, are enough to shatter this illusion conclusively. On that night, hundreds of far-right Jewish Israelis rampaged across East Jerusalem, terrorizing Palestinian families, attacking homes, and shouting “Death to Arabs.” During the riot, a video interview with a woman wearing a “[Meir] Kahane was right” sticker went viral. The interviewer asked, “Does [the slogan] ‘May your village burn/death to Arabs’ represent you?” The woman replied that she prefers to speak of Palestinians in politer terms, saying “You’ll leave your village and we’ll live in it.”
In the aftermath of the rampage, prominent Jewish figures were quick to distance themselves from the events, often by employing the tired platitude “This is not who we are”. They claimed the mob represented a small segment of Israeli society that is actively ostracized for its reprehensible views. But this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. The history of Israel’s practices of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and ethnic concentration, laid so inescapably bare in the 200-page report, make plain that the goal of the rioters is one shared with the Israeli state more broadly. It makes clear in exacting detail that the policy of Israel towards Palestinians in Israel proper, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank has always been: You will leave your villages, and Israelis will live in them.
From the Negev to the Galilee, Israel has expropriated hundreds of thousands of dunums of land from Palestinian families to promote Jewish settlement. They continue to pursue, promote and enact policies that contain Palestinians within densely populated, under-served enclaves. Every day, in East Jerusalem and Hebron, Palestinian families live under the threat that settlers will storm into their homes and occupy them, or arrive with court orders that justify their expulsion on the basis of forged documents. By May 6, another six families from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah will be forcibly expelled by order of the Jerusalem District Court. No one expects they will be the last.
The Israeli state continues to do everything the woman from the Jerusalem riots hoped for. Her stated ambition that “You’ll leave your village and we’ll live in it” is not a dystopian vision that mustering of better angels can avert. The Judaization of the Galilee, Negev, Jerusalem, and Hebron is the living realization of that goal. Apartheid is the present and, more damningly, the past.